In the Royal Ballet’s last programme for this season two old favourites frame the first performances of Alastair Marriott’s latest work, Connectome. It’s a well-balanced evening and gives the new piece every chance to shine.
And shine it does, quite literally. The set consists of hundreds of steel tubes suspended from the flies, and they shimmer and reflect the light as they rise and fall to reveal or conceal the dancers or to make a linear forest for them to fight through or play in. The designer is Es Devlin, and her concept is extended by Luke Halls’s video projections, constantly changing patterns made solely of white lines until technicolour breaks in a few minutes before the end. The whole idea stems from the title: a connectome is a ‘wiring diagram’ of the connections in the brain, and Marriott’s choreography is based on the idea that we could read from it, if we knew how, the experiences and emotions that make up our individual characters.
Marriott has been making ballets for the company’s main stage since 2005 and they have all been thoughtful, carefully worked-out pieces, blessedly free from pretentiousness but lacking the strong choreographic punch which would make them live in the memory. This new one, set to four pieces by Arvo Part, will certainly do that – but it will take more than one viewing to decide whether it’s because of a new self-confidence in Marriott or because of this strikingly beautiful setting. He’s certainly given himself the best possible start by choosing an admirably strong cast: Natalia Osipova, Edward Watson and Steven McRae in the principal roles, and four very promising young men from the corps de ballet to back them up. Even so I felt that in the first and last sections the decor dominated. In the second, though – danced by McRae and the young men, in a golden light, to Part’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer – the intended feeling of spirituality came through very strongly, and the third part, a pas de deux for Osipova and Watson on the subject of love and loss, was intensely moving. It was only there that the choreographic idea seemed fully realised – elsewhere it seemed as if Marriott was holding something back, reluctant to reveal the true depth of his feelings. But there are much worse faults than emotional reticence and I hope Connectome will stick in the repertoire and give us a chance to investigate it further.
The evening opened with Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, just a month or so after its 50th anniversary and with the original Oberon and Titania – Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley – on hand to take a very warmly greeted curtain call at the end.
I didn’t much enjoy The Dream on its last outing, finding McRae’s obvious higher-and-faster approach more than a little irritating, and was pleased to find that he’s moved on from there and seemed much more concerned with establishing his character. Paul Kay’s Puck was a good foil for him, bringing out the master-servant relationship and also very nicely Ashtonian. Roberta Marquez was Titania, and I find her interpretation much harder to admire – she smiles and smiles and looks very sweet but she’s just tripping along on the surface of the role. At the Ashton Symposium last autumn we saw Sibley working with Akane Takada on the great pas de deux from the end of the ballet and saying to her quite fiercely “You’re not a pretty fairy”. This isn’t a conventional happy-ever-after wedding scene and you don’t have to remember Sibley herself – Leanne Benjamin or, especially, Sarah Wildor would do – to realise that Marquez is not getting anywhere near the heart of it.
Amongst the four human lovers I particularly enjoyed the feisty but bewildered Laura McCulloch and the gentle sincerity of Christina Arestis. ( I think some of the byplay in their scenes has been toned down since last time, greatly to their advantage.) Bennet Gartside, as Bottom was a joy to watch – I don’t know how it’s possible for a dancer wearing an ass’s head to convey such clear and endearing emotion, but Gartside does it. And the ballet itself is pure delight, a genuine classic.
And finally there was more delight, though perhaps not quite so pure, in the return of Jerome Robbins’ The Concert. It’s years since it was last seen at Covent Garden and I do wonder if perhaps that’s actually a good thing: all jokes can wear off if seen too often, and we also get the pleasure of anticipating, and hearing, the reaction of the many who’ve never seen it before – especially, this time, of the child who got one of the jokes a little after everyone else, and whose delighted giggle set the whole audience off again. The only thing I regretted was that we have lost the Edward Gorey front curtains, created for the RB premiere and much more fun than the original Saul Steinberg designs which have now replaced them.
Everyone remembers the ‘mistakes’ waltz but I’m just as fond of the butterflies at the end and the quiet interlude in the rain. Robert Clark, the pianist, made a hit with his comedy routine at the start as well as by his playing. and the leading roles are a gift for the right dancers. Lauren Cuthbertson looked instantly at home as the woman in the blue hat, at her best when handling the social embarrassment of discovering that the hand she’s warmly holding doesn’t have a body, or even an arm, attached to it; Bennet Gartside had some wonderful moments as the hen-pecked husband but I don’t actually think that subtle, thoughtful dancers bring out the best in this role – my benchmark is still Michael Coleman who went at it with no inhibitions whatsoever. Even so this was a fun way for Gartside to finish an extraordinarily impressive year and it would be good to see him listed in a higher rank next season.